Efficiency Of Nuclear Power Generation Over Fossil Fuels Engineering Essay

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This study examines a sphere of engineering which is widely debated in the society today. This importance of energy in our lives cannot be over emphasized as it powers everything we do, from simple lights to the computer which was used to type this report to cooking the food we eat and so much more. It is so important, that in the event of a power outage (due to a breakdown or natural disaster), life does not run as smoothly as normal and people, firms and organizations lose large amounts of money.

This study will attempt to show the defects of the current power generation technique and why it needs to be phased out to make way for a more efficient one.


As at the time of doing this research, the writer had not discovered any clearly defined, laid out parameters to aid the analysis of this study. As a result of that, the writer had to fashion out the parameters. This was done by highlighting some of the mitigating factors in power generation today, and then examining both power generation methods in relation to these factors.

Rationale for this study:

This study is based in the energy field of engineering. As a student going on to study engineering, it is my high level of interest in the field that makes so much effort to make life easy for mankind that influenced my decision to do this study. It carries a simple hypothesis: "nuclear power is more efficient than fossil fuels".

Experimental Design:

This research was more of a secondary research than anything else. It did not involve testing in a laboratory, or blowing up something somewhere. It was a research incorporating comparison backed up by facts from primary research by other, well recognised parties. This design accomplished its objective by showing how nuclear power was a better option in most of the factors considered.

Science and engineering are known for their distinct research methods which involve formulation of hypothesis, testing and finally drawing conclusions from results of tests. This research was no different; it incorporated the same methods and produced concise results. This method is fully compatible with the selected area of study.

Terms of Reference: This research covers a small scope limited within the boundaries of secondary research. This is done by drawing conclusions from other research results and putting together coherent evidence.

Purpose of research: to prove higher efficiency ratio of nuclear power generation to fossil fuels.

Boundaries: Secondary research, research from other credible sources, not practical primary research carried out.

Stakeholders: research carried out for the attention of Walsall College - University of Wolverhampton International Foundation Year.

Research/Evaluative Questions:

Present consumption levels of fossil fuels

Advantages and disadvantages of Fossil fuel usage

Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power

Comparison of both nuclear power and fossil fuels.

*questions a, b, c and d all backed by evidence form secondary research

Table of Contents


Power Generation

Fossil Fuels

Nuclear Power

Other Forms of Power Generation

Efficiency of Power Generation Techniques

Criteria for Determining Efficiency of Power Generation

Input Cost

Environmental Impact (as regards pollution)

Economic Viability



Safety of Operators in the generation process

Portability and Accessibility of generated power

Analysis of Performance of Nuclear Power Generation against Fossil Fuels


Suggestions and Remarks



Power, according to the most fundamental definitions, is the ability to do work. Science is basically all about making life easier for mankind and power is the means to achieving this aim. It would have been nice to cite an article to support this point but really it's fundamental that if you want a machine doing your work for you, then it needs to be powered. In fact, according to the Microsoft Student 2009 Encyclopaedia, "power is the rate of performing work, or transferring energy".

Power generally is any input that is processed in order to do work or transfer energy. But in the scope of this research, which focuses on electrical power, it is concerned with driving currents in a circuit which in turn, operate other power processors like light bulbs, mechanical devices, etc. It is also important to note that this power is exhaustible and has to be continually generated.

Power Generation

There are various ways of synthesizing power. They are usually classified according to the input they require, the output and sometimes the capacity of power they produce. The major ones are discussed below. It is worthy of note though, that this report will focus on the electricity generation processes of power generation.

Fossil Fuels

As the name suggests these are fuels that are made up of fossils. These fuels are coal, petroleum and natural gas. These substances are hydrocarbons because they consist mainly of hydrogen and carbon. According to the California Energy Commission, the fossils were formed within 286 to 360 million years ago during the CARBONIFEROUS period which was part of the PALEOZOIC era. In this period, as trees and animals died, their remains sunk and settled at the bottom of seas and oceans. They formed layers of a spongy-like material called PEAT and as hundreds of years went by, other sediments like sand and clay came to settle on the peat. The pressure generated by the sedimentary layers on the peat over the years caused it to undergo various transformations, emerging as coal, crude oil or natural gas. Being hydrocarbons, fossil fuels are highly combustible given the CH- bonds which allow the H- hydrogen to burn easily. This however releases the remaining Carbon atoms into the atmosphere, polluting it. The main process that generates power from burning fossil fuels is that it generates heat which is used to synthesize other forms of energy.

Nuclear Energy

In 1942, Italian scientist Enrico Fermi built a small atomic reactor in America. The first nuclear power station that supplied electricity was built in Russia. These developments were instrumental to what was seemingly a huge breakthrough in power generation until they were interrupted by the tragedies of Hiroshima nuclear bomb in 1945 and the testing of the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean in 1953. This proved that nuclear energy could also be used for negative purpose and this raised doubts about the safety of utilizing nuclear power. Nuclear energy is generated as a result of nuclear fission. This process involves the splitting of a radioactive isotope into 2 roughly equal parts, releasing large amounts of heat in the process which is used to generate energy. The radioactive isotope of uranium (235U) is not very abundant and the more abundant 238-isotope has to be 'enriched' in order to be able to take part in the nuclear reaction. Basically, a nuclear reaction generates a great deal of heat energy which is the converted to different forms, including mechanical and electrical. Below is an illustration of the process of using nuclear energy to generate electricity.

Other Forms of Power Generation

Power can be generated through other different means although they may not be as popular and efficient as the two above.

Solar Power:

This involves harnessing the sun's heat and light energy to synthesize power. This can be done in three ways:

Using a solar (Photovoltaic) cell to convert light energy to electricity.

Pumping water through pipes in a solar panel in order to heat it.

Solar furnaces - using a huge array of mirrors to direct the sun's energy in one direction in order to generate very high temperatures.

Wind Power:

This involves harnessing the power of wind to drive the propellers of windmills, which, in turn, drive generators to produce electricity.

Hydroelectric Power:

This method of power generation involves building a dam and forcing the water through a small space, creating a great deal of pressure which turns massive turbines and generates electricity.

Efficiency of Power Generation Techniques

Criteria for Determining Efficiency of Power Generation Techniques

At this point in time, there is no defined criteria for assessing the efficiency characteristics of the different power generation techniques been carried out all over the world. This research, therefore incorporates a simple analysis of "compare and contrast" to examine the efficiency of power generation techniques. Back to the issue of lack of existing, clear-cut, laid out criteria for examining efficiency, this was solved by taking into consideration that some power generation techniques are used more than others and generate more power than others, thus there are factors which influence more use of a particular power generation method than others and this factors, this research is going to take into consideration.

Input Cost

In a comparison between nuclear power and fossil fuels in relation to input costs, nuclear power is much more efficient. Nuclear power plants, apart from requiring less fuel (uranium or plutonium) also conserve this fuel to the maximum. In fact, according to cti.itc.virginia.edu, nuclear power plants only need refuelling every 12 to18 months and this new fuel is about 2 metric tonnes or 6 truckloads of uranium. A coal power plant, on the other hand, requires a new trainload of about 100 tonnes of coal EVERYDAY. Effectively, in terms of input cost, it's a no-contest between nuclear power and fossil fuels.

Environmental Impact (as regards pollution)

The main reason for the clamour for the halt of fossil fuel power generation techniques is due to the high levels of environmental degradation unleashed on the environment by these procedures. From several sources, the figures of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels are staggering. On the other hand, nuclear power plants have absolutely no role in global warming. The only environmental impacts of nuclear plants are the radioactive waste which will be released if not managed properly.

Economic Viability

The proven economic viability of nuclear power cannot be over- emphasized. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) states that "nuclear power costs in the United States have fallen from 1.28 cents per kWh in the mid-1980s to only 0.44cents per kWh today. " cti.itc.virginia.edu cites "in a joint study, 11 out of 19 countries found nuclear power to be at least 10% cheaper than coal - fired power. 7 other countries found the prices to be nearly equivalent. "


Security, as always is a factor in power generation. There is always the risk that plutonium MIGHT be stolen to produce weapons. Nuclear power facilities can also be targeted by bombs in order to expose the radioactivity inside. As usual, these are PROBABILITIES and not facts. For these reasons, Uranium and plutonium shipments are tracked and weighed before and after shipment to ensure that none goes missing. As for nuclear plants being terror targets, coal and other combustion plants aren't any less ripe targets. In fact, they are more likely to explode and burn. Discovery channel, in February 2010 showed a documentary where an oil tanker in the port of a very big city was bombed and resulted in numerous casualties. It is however heart-warming to know that nuclear plants have a much higher level of security protocols and personnel.


The United States International for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) carried out a qualitative research on the resource reserves for nuclear energy and fossil fuels and below are their conclusions.

Nuclear Energy with plutonium - Indefinite future

ii. Nuclear Energy with Uranium - 50 to 100 years, possibly more

iii. Fossil fuels (at current consumption rate) - A few hundred years.

Fossil fuels took thousands, maybe millions of years to form. At the current consumption rate, they would be completely diminished. On the other hand, nuclear power would last much longer because:

Very small amounts of radioactive elements are required. (about 2 metric tonnes every 18 months for refuelling)

A large portion of nuclear waste can recycled into more radioactive isotopes.

Safety of Operators in the generation process

Safety of a power generation process is always a paramount factor, and in the event of an accident, the operators of these plants are the first to be harmed. Safety of operators and engineers comes first thus. According to PBS Online, "US nuclear power is not responsible for any deaths in its entire history. Due to mining accidents and respiratory complications, over 30 thousand deaths have been attributed to US coal mining since the 1930's." Another point is the specialist equipment and protocol that ensure that there is minimal, if any exposure of staff to radioactivity in the event of an accident. These are safer than a petrol or gas plant where just a spark or even lightning can cause a fire.

Portability and Accessibility of generated power:

Power cannot be utilized unless it is delivered to its consumers. This is where portability comes into play. It is FACT that nuclear power plants are more portable than fossil combustion plants. While fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas can be transported. It is not easy to achieve this feat with the full combustion plants and when this is done, it results in a much smaller capacity of the plant. Nuclear plants on the other hand are quite mobile. They can be built in ships and submarines to carry power to the most remote areas possible.

Analysis of the Efficiency of Nuclear Power Generation against Fossil Fuels

It is obvious that in the world today, fossil fuels are the most utilized source of power but the damage they do to the atmosphere cannot be ignored any longer and nuclear power is arguably the second most utilized form of power. It is the view of many energy critics that nuclear power deserves to be given the chance to cater for the worlds energy needs. As this research has unearthed, nuclear power has some disadvantages which, though are not very likely to occur may have disastrous consequences in the event of their occurrence. That aside, it is good to note that nuclear power also has many immense advantages. These advantages are very much based on hard facts and not on slim probabilities as is the case with its disadvantages.

However, the huge expenses incurred in building a nuclear power plant and then decommissioning it when it has outlived its usefulness (usually after 40 years), means that nuclear power is by no means the cheapest form of power generation. This point may not prove tangible however in the long run due to the cheap electricity that can be generated over a long period of time.

Another salient point in favour of nuclear power is its mobility. These plants can be built as ships or submarines to enable them take power to the most remote areas which might prove a task too difficult with a coal plant or any other fossil combustion plant. It should not be forgotten that the nuclear industry is the only energy industry that takes full responsibility for all its wastes and this is incorporated into its costs. Despite this it is still economically competitive.


According to Ewan McLeish in "The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power," a pellet of nuclear fuel weighs approximately 0.1 ounce (6 grams). However, it can yield the amount of energy equivalent to that generated by a metric tonne of coal, which makes it much more efficient.

Suggestions and Remarks

The improvements on nuclear power over the past few decades have made a case for the wide implementation of this technique for power generation. With immense, sure - fire benefits to be accrued from its usage, compared to the few, probability - reliant disadvantages, nuclear power has never been more appealing. The widespread campaigns for the cessation of fossil fuel usage mean that there has to be a viable alternative being considered. Man, being a creature that always plans for the future, would not consider stopping its power generation if there wasn't another means to this end. Nuclear power is definitely the way forward and we should harness and exploit this windfall to the fullest.